Based on my many years as an executive in large and small businesses, and time mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners, I find that most people enjoy being CEO critics for a day, but are hesitant to consider themselves as a long-term candidate for that position. They often rationalize their lack of zeal to not having the right background or credentials for the role.
I’ve long felt that CEOs are just regular people, like the rest of us, perhaps with a bit more drive and confidence. I found this view well supported in a new book, “The CEO Next Door,” by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell. Unlike my gut feelings, they base their views on their own study of over 2,600 business leaders, first surfaced last year in The Harvard Business Review.
Their conclusion is that those who reach the top in business share behaviors that anyone can master, including being decisive, reliable, delivering on what they promise, adapting boldly, and engaging with stakeholders without shying away from conflict. These authors go on to debunk the many myths I hear that hold back many aspiring CEOs, including the following:
- Prior executive experience trumps all for CEO success. Among the more shocking findings in the research was that first-time CEOs were statistically no less likely to meet or exceed expectations than those with prior CEO experience. If you have the drive and passion, don’t let the experience myth keep you from aspiring to your dream.
- CEO is a birthright talent, rather than an acquired skill. I’m sure that some natural- born CEOs do exist, but I agree with Peter Drucker, who said “Leadership is not magic, and has nothing to do with genes. It’s a discipline, and it can be learned.” Over 70 percent of the CEOs in the study claimed no early age aptitude or interest for such a role.
- To become a CEO you must have a flawless track record. The reality is that 45 percent of CEOs interviewed had at least one mistake that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business. What set successful CEOs apart was not their lack of mistakes, but how they handled setbacks. They talked about what they learned, rather than failure.
- Successful CEOs need a larger-than-life personality. Charismatic “masters of the universe” may dominate Hollywood films, but in real boardrooms, results speak louder than charisma. Over a third of the CEOs in the study actually described themselves as introverted, with no measurable differences in results between introverts and extroverts.
- Great CEOs work harder than the rest of us. Analysis showed no predictive relationship between how hard a leader worked and how likely he or she was to become a CEO. Furthermore, 97 percent of low-performing CEOs in the study scored high on work ethic. Many people work hard, but fewer consistently produce winning results.
- For CEOs, the smarter, the better. Above-average intelligence is an important indicator of CEO potential. However, once at that level, higher intelligence as measured by standardized tests does not increase the odds of performing well in that role. It’s key to speak in clear simple language to convey messages and get the rest of us to follow.
- Great CEOs must be able to excel in any situation. A common misperception is that a great CEO is capable of handling any situation. I find that the best are very thoughtful about identifying the roles and context where they can contribute. They have the self-discipline to turn down the wrong job or a challenge they are not yet ready to tackle.
- The right academic credentials are critical to be a CEO. Some of the most famous billionaire CEOs, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out of school to build their businesses. In this study, only eight percent of the CEOs did not complete college, but I’m not convinced that the degree is as critical as the discipline and learning.
- Great CEOs are likely to be egotistical superheroes. In fact, the authors found that the weakest CEO candidates were more likely to be self-centered, and were superheroes only in their own mind. The best were quick to use the term “we,” and recognized the strengths of their team. Many traced their team focus back to mentoring or athletics.
My message is that you need not let any of these myths derail you from running your own company, or limit your career advancement in your chosen profession. I’ve known many great CEOs, and like Peter Drucker, I don’t believe there is any magic formula. With the pace of change in business today, there has never been a better time to follow your dream, and get to the top.